Our next Journal interview is with the brilliant Zoé Whitley, an American art historian and curator who has been director of Chisenhale Gallery since 2020. Based in London, UK, Zoe has held curatorial positions at the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Tate galleries, and the Hayward Gallery. At the Tate galleries, Whitley co-curated the acclaimed 2017 exhibition Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power. We sat down to discuss her journey so far, the rapturous response to Soul of a Nation, and the emerging artists we should be following in 2022.
‘Curating’ is a word that has become quite overused in the age of Instagram. What does the practice of curating mean to you?
Reflecting on this year, ‘curating’ has meant learning to slow down. I’ve recently been trying to set a more intentional working pace for myself and for my team. Which translates to taking on slightly fewer projects, developed with artists over a longer time period.
Curating, in my experience, mostly just means doing. Problem-solving, fact-finding, email-answering, fundraising, writing, editing (and re-editing!), all with the goal of communicating an artist’s unique perspective. At Chisenhale, it generally means sitting with the artist and working through a set of key questions: What do we want to achieve? What haven’t we done before? How can we make that a reality?
Who or what first inspired you to pursue curating as a career?
I credit three women. My grandmother, a talented designer and maker of clothing who was equally creative in every aspect of her life. My mother, who exposed me to art from a young age. And my high school art teacher, Marianne Hall, who taught me so much about artistic techniques and artists’ lives.
Your CV includes curatorial stints at the Tate, the Hayward, the Venice Biennale, among others, and now you’re the director of Chisenhale Gallery. Would you say you’re more strategic or intuitive in your approach big career decisions?
Definitely intuitive. At the risk of sounding like a trite, inspirational meme, my past self would be pretty amazed at how far I’ve come. Every role I’ve applied for was at the urging of one, or in the case of Chisenhale, six(!) friends and colleagues.
Do you have a curatorial ‘uniform’?
I’ve always aspired to have a Parisian capsule wardrobe but I love clothes and colour too much to really edit what I wear down to a uniform. I wear a lot of patterned dresses because you can stand out with very little effort, just by putting on a single item.
Have you felt a shift in the art world’s approach to Black representation since June 2020?
I have seen some awareness grow but to actually, palpably feel a shift is something that has to be structural and therefore far longer-term. We’re only just embarking on that now, standing on the shoulders of those who’ve been doing this work for decades.
You have consistently used your curatorial platform to draw attention to the vital, yet often sidelined, contributions of Black artists, critics and creators to the art historical canon. Did you meet resistance to this focus earlier in your career?
Fortunately, I was always actively encouraged to pursue the areas of art history I was drawn to. My art teacher, Marianne Hall, worked with me to develop an independent study course so that I could learn about African American artists. Fast-forwarding to my first curatorial job at the V&A, Curator Rosemary Miles saw how excited I was by a Faith Ringgold acquisition and began introducing me to living artists. My first trip to Chisenhale in 2003 was as her +1 to see an installation by Faisal Abdu’allah and a then-less well-known architect by the name of David Adjaye. Y
You co-curated the acclaimed blockbuster show at Tate Modern, Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power, back in 2017. How long did that show take to pull together and what did the rapturous reception mean to you?
For an exhibition of its scale, scope and original research, it came together pretty quickly, in just under two years. That said, it was an intense two years in which my co-curator and I were travelling away from our families for at least two weeks in any given month. We learned so much, so fast, from the generosity and genius of the artists and their families who gave so freely of their time, their hospitality, their memories and their archives. I understood the stakes of getting wrong a show like this, so the public response was a relief, and then a joy. I think the effort and respect could be seen and felt. I remember talking to my grandmother about feeling immense pressure to make sure this story, our story, was well told. I was fully angling for her reassurance and something like, don’t put that pressure on yourself, baby. Just do your best. But her response was, That’s right! So I just got back to work until it was done.
What is your favourite (or least favourite) piece of ‘art jargon’?
Too many least favourites to choose from! But my favourite quote is jazz musician Charles Mingus saying, Making the simple complicated is commonplace. Making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that’s creativity. I’m all for less jargon even if I’m as guilty as the next person of using it.
What does a perfect day off look like to you?
Not checking my email. Curled up on the sofa watching a film with my husband, our daughter and our dog Missy, a curry soon to be delivered. Is there a particular artist or institution that you would love to work with in the future? To return to the first question about slowing down, one of the things I find difficult is that as soon as project is out in the public, the question is always so what’s next? I hope to be at Chisenhale a good, long while. That’s my focus.
Which emerging artists should we look out for in the coming years?
I would say this, but all of the artists who show at Chisenhale! Rindon Johnson’s exhibition is on view until 6 February, so let’s start there.
Finally, this year we are asking all of our Journal interviewees to complete the following phrase to help us celebrate 25 years of You Must Create (YMC): You Must Create… new possibilities